Paul's Heart

Life As A Dad, And A Survivor

Archive for the category “Cancer”

What Would Be?

I always have mixed feelings about “birthday” posts recognizing “what would have been,” someone’s birthday, if they would be alive today. I can understand why it is done, that desire to think about what it would be like, if they were still here today. Or perhaps to recognize how long it has been since the loved one had passed.

These two photos are the first known, and last photos of me with my father. Today is his birthday. Oddly, it was not until about a decade ago, that I could remember what day of January it was and then it hit me, one month after mine. I have not forgotten it since.

Sadly, all I get to do on my father’s birthday anymore, is just remember it, remember him, and remember what we had gone through with each other over the first half of my life.

There are not a lot of stories from my childhood of my father, or photographs (something that I have more than made up for when it came to his granddaughters). My parents were divorced when I was three, and without going into details, not relevant to this post, I hardly saw my Dad.

It was not until the second quarter of my life, that we reconnected, and made amends. There was a lot to talk about and a lot to deal with. Long story short, my Dad took advantage of that second chance with me.

We both had our health issues, I had already gone through my battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and he would have a major heart attack in his late 50’s, leading to major lifestyle changes. Following that heart attack, I found myself paying even closer attention to my Dad and our relationship. If he needed something physically done, I would take care of it for him, such as chopping firewood for the winter.

That would change when I would begin to develop health issues myself, related to the treatments I had received for my cancer, now 32 years ago. The two of us, with our heart conditions, would actually become an issue, as, even though we saw different cardiologists, it was in the same health network computer-wise. We have the same first and last name, and yes, the same day of the month. Had anyone paid attention to the year of birth, there would be no mistaking who was who. But on at least two occasions, I had to correct the nurse, that I was not the “Paul” with the heart attack and a smoker. Our charts were definitely different inside.

But there is one thing in common that we do have, actually seems to run in my family on my father’s side. We are not known for our longevity. My father, one of five children, is only the second child to live past 55 years of age. His younger sister died at 48, his mother at 49.

My father and I had never really given family longevity a thought, especially since he survived his heart attack. Admittedly, given all the health issues I deal with, I have passed 55 myself, but I do not take every day for granted with all the cards against me.

At the age of 65, and a smoker for at least fifty years of those, my father had been diagnosed with emphasema. But it was a mild enough case, that they told him, if he were to quit smoking, he could actually reverse the progression. Unfortunately, he could not quit, and not for lack of trying. But two years later, he would face his most difficult challenge ever, a diagnosis of lung cancer.

Again, I won’t go into the details here (I have written about it in “My Dad Was Just Like Me”), as by now you know the ending.

But it was a comment that my father had made, which stands out, every birthday just before his birthday, the year that he died. “I just want to make it to 70.” He would be one of the few, to make it that far. He would pass away four months later, and I do not know if he realized that he had done just that, made it to 70. The cancer had spread enough, that it was not causing memory and other cognitive issues. He had his clear moments, and then, there were those that we could not recognize him.

As humble as any man could be, I am glad that he lived long enough to be a part of his granddaughters’ lives. And I know he was glad to have that time.

I miss him dearly. And I remember him often. And though my health challenges are just as if not more serious than my father’s, I do hope to live long enough to see things that I have set as goals.

Happy Birthday Dad.

What’s In A Number?

This is a boring meme that showed up across social media in recent weeks. I do not usually reply to these things, especially the ones that pretty much end up being password related. But admittedly, this one did kind of have me curious.

I am recognizing a birthday today. I do not celebrate them anymore, I just let them happen. I prefer no fanfare. The truth is, I consider myself lucky to still be here considering everything that my body has been through, due to the treatments that saved my life from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma over 32 years ago.

But I decided to give this one a go, just as a lighter post. Of course, when the meme came out, as I was at the age of 55, flipping the numbers did nothing. I remained 55 years old. Boring. And now I am heading into the upper half of my fifties. To be honest, nothing would thrill me more than to be on the lower half of this decade of my life, to get another crack during those times. I thought it would be interesting to reflect back on those younger decades.

I will skip my 5th year of birth, as I know there was nothing remarkable about my first year in school as a kindergartener, except that I was small, and some remark “oh how cute!”. Apparently, I was also a blonde.

At 15, I switched high schools. While it was somewhat intimidating, the opportunities given to me at my new school, allowed my life to take much different paths than what I had been going previously and I definitely do not think things would have turned out better. I will always remember the new friends that came into my life, as I am still friends with them today, more than forty years later.

At 25, I was beginning my life as a cancer survivor. That year was filled with constant fears of my cancer coming back. Wanting to move forward with my life, I got married to my fiance who had stood by me during my battle with what was called back then, Hodgkin’s Disease. I had resumed working. I was ready to get back to some sort of normalcy.

Age 35 was a transition year for me. My first marriage had ended, devastating as I had so much wanted to have a family, and this would likely reduce the chances of that happening. (spoiler alert – a second marriage not in my “five” years, I would end up blessed with two amazing daughters)

I experienced my first and so far, my only kidney stone at age 45. I had been put on a calcium supplement to deal with one of the late side effects from my cancer treatments, for a diagnosis of osteopenia and facet joint arthritis in my lower back. This was discovered during a medical work up for long term cancer survivor health issues, discovered in 2008, when I had to have emergency open heart surgery (see “CABG – Not Just A Green Leafy Vegetable). And yes, the pain of that large kidney stone, was worse pain than that of my open heart surgery.

55 is an interesting year as it has been somewhat uneventful, well, perhaps better described as par for the course as I dealt with two more issues related to my treatments. But, as usual, I have gotten through both.

Aside from that, 55 has a much darker cloud looming over it. On my father’s side of the family, longevity is not in our genes. Of my father and his four siblings, only he and his one brother lived past 55, both making it to 70. Ironically, as my father lay dying from lung cancer, he actually said, “all I want to do is make it to 70,” and he did, just like his brother. But the other siblings, and his mother passed away in their late 40’s and early 50’s. This alone rents enough space in my head as I have hit this milestone of 55, and then, factor in all the trauma my body has gone through health wise since 2008, a lot. I do not have good longevity odds.

So yes, I recognize my birthday each year. It is hard to celebrate, when I know the odds of a next birthday get harder and harder.

As I turn 56, let’s flip that number. I would be 65. Why is this number significant to me, besides approaching retirement age? Besides being only the third in the last three generations to reach this age, there is a bigger plan. And it is this plan that drives me. I want to get to age 65.

My doctors who care for the multiple health issues from my treatments concede that they cannot reverse what is happening to my body, and they cannot stop them. There are some issues that can be slowed down, and some that can be repaired, albeit temporarily (needing to be fixed again later on). But knowing about these issues, is half the battle. Dealing with them is the other half of the plan. And that plan is this. I want to see my daughters grow into adulthood. I want to attend my daughters high school graduations. If my daughters choose to go to college, I want to witness their graduations. If my daughters choose to get married, I want to walk my daughters down the aisles. And my final wish, would be to hear the name “grandpa” or whatever my daughters would have their children refer to me as. This promise had been made to me over 13 years ago, and I now have one daughter graduating from high school this year, and the other next year. If I have my way, and keep my attitude, my 65th year will be my greatest.

In all honestly, I do not expect to see 75 or 85, definitely not 95, whether genetics or cancer survivorship issues. But I seriously want to get to 65. It is not going to be easy as I know I will see at the least, several more surgeries, and likely additional diagnosis. I am okay with that as I am living each day, the best that I can, no regrets.

This was a hell of a writing prompt my writing coach would have been proud of. I miss having her weekly prompts. This was fun.

What Do You Want For Christmas?

“What do you want for Christmas?”, or since my birthday falls a week before the big day, “what would you like for your birthday?” In my childhood days, I had no problem rattling off things that I would like to have for both occasions. In my adulthood however, nearly all of it, my answer has always been simple to me, frustrating to others, time.

I love this quote from John Lennon. Asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, Lennon answered simply, “happy.” When I get asked what gifts I would like for either a holiday or my birthday, I answer “time.” Happiness was important to Lennon. Time is important to me.

I stopped longing for material things at the age of 22, when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Things no longer mattered to me. All I wanted was simple, more time. All I knew about cancer, was that people died from it. As I reached remission, my feelings never changed. Survivorship became about making a magical “5 year survival mark” as if any time after that did not matter, because it rarely got discussed.

But as my survivorship term increased, now by the decades, there is also a reality, and only reaffirms the only thing I want for these special occasions. Treatments that I went through to put my cancer into remission, over time, have caused, and continue to cause cumulative damage. I have had three heart surgeries, a surgery to repair my carotid artery, and two episodes of aspiration pneumonia that went septic. That makes six, SIX other events in my life, besides my cancer that have put my life at risk.

Since my cancer days, these six events put me in a position, that I was not prepared for, nor thought I had the ability, or the fortune, to survive. The reality, is there will be likely more of these events.

Over my years of survivorship as a peer to peer counselor (I counsel fellow cancer patients and survivors), there have been many survivors whose bodies had gone through so much trauma, their bodies could take no more. They had run out of time. As I write this post, I mourn yet another one of those survivors, a special one to me, as she was one of the first I met, way before Facebook, and on the other side of the country. I will share my tribute with her as her own post, as she deserves. She, like so many others, were also younger than me. Time. I wish she, they, could have had more. There was so much more for them to experience.

So yes, when I get asked, “what do you want for Christmas?” or “what do you want for your birthday?”, I respond, “time, more of it.” If there is one thing I have learned about cancer and its survivorship, I have no control over what happens, and I live each day with the purpose of enjoying it. But as my daughters prepare to enter the next stage of their lives, adulthood, I want to see more. And that means, that I need more time. Everything else will take care of itself.

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